Label of the Month: CLR
Label of the Month: CLRApril 4, 2022
Create. Learn. Repeat. After a five-year hiatus, Chris Liebing’s powerhouse techno label, CLR, is back in action. Marcus Barnes learns more about its triumphant return.
When Chris Liebing joins me on Zoom he’s sitting on a ski lift, a couple of minutes away from the top of a snow-covered mountain. I’m faced with a man who is decked out in a very cool pair of goggles with translucent rainbow lenses that cover the top half of his face, together with the protective snowsuit, boots and skis you need to navigate such unforgiving yet awe-inspiring terrain.
He’s on the way to his favourite quiet spot, where he often goes to clear his mind, or to have a good old natter, which he’s about to have with me.
The background to this, a first for me in my 19 years as a journalist, is that Chris has been visiting this particular part of the French Swiss Alps since 1990, when he spent a whole season here. During the pandemic he decided to vacate his home in Frankfurt and spend winter in the region, eventually realising that he didn’t want to leave. So he’s now looking for a permanent base.
“I never knew that those two worlds, techno and skiing, would go together so well and that it would be so inspiring,” he says, sat against the blinding white backdrop of the Alps. Famous ski resort Verbier is just down the hill, where the Polaris Festival takes place every year. Last year, Chris rocked up on his mountain bike, much to the surprise of his peers who were playing there. “They were like, ‘What the f*** are you doing here?!’… ‘Well, I live here and I’m here with my bike!’,” he quips.
If you’ve heard Chris’ sets but never met him, you could be forgiven for being surprised by how affable and friendly he is. A demeanour that belies the often brutal music he plays. It’s like chatting with an old mate down the pub — or up a mountain.
This move to the Alpine region feels like the completion of a cycle; connecting right back to that first season in the mountains. Back then, he was making his first steps into the professional DJ domain.
His first paid gig was in 1991, when he was still playing a very eclectic range of music. Eight years later, he was a resident at Sven Väth’s legendary Omen in Frankfurt and set up his label CLR. Launched in 1999, the label was a necessity after he left his previous outlet Fine Audio Recordings.
The initials CLR originally stood for Chris Liebing Records, “I never really liked that idea. To be honest, I feel there’s so much ego in this business already, do I have to put my name in my label name?” he admits. “But I had to do something and I was never really that creative when it comes to naming stuff.”
With Chris’ name already well established on the techno circuit, CLR releases flew off the shelves and it was an instant success. Initially, purely intended to be a platform for his own, it was driven by a common notion — bypassing the need to rely on someone else’s label to get your music out there.
On that note, CLR shares other tenets commonly found with independent labels: there was never really a plan; musical quality over sales; and, eventually, connecting with and nurturing a group of artists that form the nucleus of CLR’s family.
Tracing back over the 30-plus years Chris has been DJ professionally, he notes that it’s “puzzling” to have been active for as long as he has. “I never really feel like I grew up. It’s part of being in this music industry — there’s no reason to grow up,” he explains.
For some, this could be seen in a negative light, “Peter Pan Syndrome” as they call it. But we agree that this youthful energy and outlook is beneficial to his label and his artist career. “You still feel like you’re discovering things, I’m still learning new things every day. And I still have the same excitement, like, ‘Oh, I want to do this, I want to try this’. And that has never ceased,” he adds.
Additionally, Chris’ perspective allows him to connect with the younger artists he signs to CLR. “I have so many young artists now on the label, like Deas, Frankie Bromley, and I speak to them and I see their excitement and I can really understand it because I’m basically exactly the same,” he says. “It still hasn’t changed and I don’t want it to change, I embrace it.”
He goes on to explain that, by demonstrating such excitement and wonder, he hopes to inspire this new generation, which isn’t s something he was privy to in the early nineties because the culture was still in its infancy.
“Now you can inspire those young artists like, ‘Right, if I keep that excitement, if I keep that passion for the music, my career might also [last for] the next 20, 25, 30 years,” he adds.
CLR has been through three distinct phases since its conception. The first was centred around Chris’ productions, with appearances from a few techno friends along the way.
In 2008, CLR underwent an overhaul with a name change (Create. Learn. Realise), a new visual identity and more output. Over the following seven years, CLR’s core family emerged; artists like Terence Fixmer, Drumcell, Monoloc and Tommy Four Seven were regular features on the release schedule. The CLR podcast was a go-to for techno fans worldwide, and Chris maintained a consistently successful DJ career.
In fact, his popularity and constant influx of bookings were key factors in the ‘quality over sales’ ethos of the label. With his DJing providing a solid source of income, Chris didn’t need to worry about record sales, which meant he’s never experienced the bad times most independent labels suffer at least once in their lifetime.
That said, perhaps CLR’s lowest point, for its core family at least, was when Chris decided to pause the label while he focused on being a dad to his two daughtersm which was sparked by what he calls healthy narcissism.
He was “a little burned out” and took the decision to freeze CLR (snow-related pun intended) to spend more time with his family and to explore other musical avenues. The result of this was signing two albums to MUTE; 2018’s Burn Slow and Another Day, which landed last year. Both albums utilised techno’s pulsating beats with a more considered approach. Burn Slow was introspective and minimal, and Another Day edged into euphoria with more melody.
Naively though, and by his own admission, Chris wasn’t aware of the impact that this pause would have on CLR’s artists. “It was an overnight decision… that’s when I first realised… the roster that I had, they were all like, ‘What? You can’t do that. This is our home. What am I supposed to do now?’,” he explains. “I did not really 100% understand my own standing. I was like, ‘You guys are all so good. You have all such amazing productions. Just send them somewhere else. What do you need me for?’”.
Given his commitment to his domestic responsibilities, and feeling a deep desire to explore other musical avenues, Chris knew he wouldn’t have the capacity to continue investing in his family of artists in the way that he wanted. But he was also unaware of CLR’s influence, which he says made him feel a little stupid.
Throughout the interview Chris displays an air of naivety that is totally unexpected given his years in the game. At this point in his career you could forgive him for being jaded. Instead he speaks excitedly about the realisation that CLR had not only provided a launchpad for his roster, but that its influence spread across the globe and had inspired people to start DJing or making music.
“I wasn’t really aware of this myself for a very long time. And I’m still not fully aware of how much influence you actually have on the career of an artist by releasing something on your label. ‘Does it really help anyone?’ — apparently, it did,” he tells me, explaining how it wasn’t until he started getting feedback from artists all over the world that the penny dropped. “‘Oh, really? That was helpful for some people?’ That is a nice thing. It’s a great bonus. It’s never really why I did this though, that was never really the idea behind it.”
The conversation then moves into conscious influence.. and questions are raised concerning whether it’s something you should be aware of when releasing music: “I just wanted to release the best possible music, but you carry quite a responsibility doing that as well,” Chris says.
“Should you be aware of how a record might influence some young producer in Brazil? Should you be aware of this? Or shouldn’t you?” The questions are never quite answered, but Chris acknowledges that it’s an “ego soothing” thing to hear when people tell him that a CLR record they heard 20 years ago set them on the path to becoming a DJ. “This is really nice. I would say it’s a bonus. It’s not necessary, but it’s a bonus.”
The word bonus crops up a few times, representing gratitude for what he’s achieved, and continues to achieve. For Chris just being able to release music and still get bookings is a dream.
Asked what success means to him, he explains, “I always felt like the term success in what I do can only be described by the fact that I’ve been able to do this for so long, and I make a living off of it and it’s still somewhat relevant.”
“People still pay money to listen to a track, or download it, or even pay to see me DJ,” he adds. ‘That’s my definition of success — you’re still having fun after all these years.”
Chris Liebing’s Time’s Up EP — CLR’s 100th release — drops April 29th, 2022. Check it out on Beatport.
Even when he decided to bring the label back — a very recent pandemic-related decision — he was surprised that people even remembered CLR.
There’s a distinct humility in the way Chris delivers this information; his warm smile, almost self-deprecating comments and candid revelations give a large insight into why people love working with him. A consummate professional, one of his big things is to give advice to those who are sending him music. Often he’ll tinker with their tracks himself, or make suggestions on how to improve them, with an almost flawless success rate.
When he’s describing this process, the positive energy emanating from him is palpable, and he revels in the fact that he can connect with and mentor artists again, with CLR back up and running.
With a new name — Create. Learn. Repeat. — it’s back with a new roster of young talent. This updated meaning for CLR is all about consistency, flow, the concept of 10,000 hours, working to create and realise over and over, never letting that motivation wane. Indicative of his own relentless ambition.
Taking an enforced break during the pandemic was, of course, momentous for everyone in one way or another. Chris found that the time off gave him the space to take stock of where he was, quoting the eighties movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it”).
Midway through describing the shift triggered by the pandemic he realises that the ski lift has stopped for the day. In order to get back down to his car he’ll have to ski. So he pops me in his pocket and makes his way back down the mountain, slowing down at one point to show me the view. Amazing.
To conclude, we discuss that almost ineffable factor; the secret of success. What has kept Chris, and his label, at the top of the game for so long? “There is a certain type of naivety, which, by now, I embrace,” he says. “I don’t want to know all the effects that your actions have out there. And I don’t see myself as this exceptional artist that has done so much for the techno scene, because I don’t think that is the case. It’s nice to hear that from people, but this is such a combined effort by so many. I’ve just played a little part in all of it.”
This naivety, combined with unwavering ambition, the occasional dash of healthy selfishness and a foundation rooted in enjoyment, connecting with people and an un-pressured sales ethos, has made CLR the seminal platform it has become. Whether Chris is aware of this or not, his top-down positive influence is widespread and, cheesy as it may sound, makes the techno world a better place.
Marcus Barnes is an author, journalist, copywriter, and tastemaker with over 15 years experience in print and online. Find him on Twitter.